This week, 38-year old Kimiko Date Krumm of Japan continues her impressive comeback to tennis at the Pattaya Open in Thailand. Date Krumm, once ranked as high as #4 in the world, retired from the game at the end of the 1996 season. After some cajoling from her husband, race car driver Michael Krumm, she decided to return to tennis at the beginning of last year. Her original plan was to simply play a series of small challenger events in Japan, but a few successful runs proved that she could still compete on the bigger stages. Just last month, Date Krumm managed to qualify for the main draw at the Australian Open before falling to top-30 player Kaia Kanepi in the first round 6-4 4-6 8-6. Today, she faces Slovakian teenager Magdalena Rybarikova in her first round match in Pattaya.
When Date Krumm originally retired at age 26, many in the game believed that she still had years of challenging for titles ahead of her. This is not an uncommon conversation in women’s tennis, as the very same thing has been said about the recent retirements of Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. Many in the game attributed the abrupt and early retirements of all three of these players to burnout. These women begin a full scale schedule of traveling around the world to play events at such a young age, that it should come as no surprise that they tire of the game even in their mid-twenties. They want to experience more outside of the game. When Clijsters retired, she cited the importance of “health and private happiness.” Having spent the previous decade in the public eye, it was important to her to know something more.
While many players retire with the goal of experiencing more of what life has to offer, it has become almost expected that they will return to the game. Date Krumm is just the latest in a series of recent players who have come out of retirement to give tennis another chance. Martina Hingis came back to tennis at the beginning of 2006 after she had spent over 3 years away from the game. Lindsay Davenport originally retired after the 2006 season when she became pregnant with her first child, but returned less than a year later. For those who do come back, the desire to see what more they can accomplish seems to outweigh the quiet life they once sought.
Date Krumm deserves to be commended for her ability to stay so fit into her late thirties, but she also shows that those who were once the best players in the game can still compete years later. These champions may retire because they feel they can no longer win major titles against younger and more powerful players, but their retirements seem to always be due more to emotional wear than physical wear. With young players who show potential, there is so much focus on rushing them into the game as early as possible. They are expected to win as early as possible. One needs to look no further than Great Britain’s Laura Robson to see a young player who may be headed down this path. After winning Junior Wimbledon at age 14 last year, she became a veritable superstar in her home country, marketed as the savior of British women’s tennis. She has been thrust into the limelight, and great things are already expected of her. Is she likely to burnout just like so many before her? Kimiko Date Krumm’s return at age 38 should teach a simple lesson to everyone in women’s tennis. There is plenty of time.